Universal Studios fined for trimming trees that were shading striking actors and writers from extreme heat

Officials said the Hollywood giant had not obtained a permit for the pruning - but could only impose a fine of $250 due to ‘outdated laws’

Io Dodds
San Francisco
Sunday 23 July 2023 21:48 BST
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The city of Los Angeles has fined Universal Studios $250 for cutting back trees that were offering shade to picketing film and TV writers during this month's brutal heatwave.

Strikers voiced suspicion that the pruning had been deliberately intended to stymie their picket line. Universal denied this claim and said it was part of routine annual maintenance.

On Friday, LA city controller Kenneth Meija alleged that the Hollywood studio had not acquired a permit to trim the trees and would be asked to pay a $250 penalty – the maximum allowed for a first-time offence.

"Trees are essential to providing Angelenos with significant environmental and public health benefits, especially during a heatwave," he said.

But he criticised "outdated laws" and a lack of funding and staff for preventing StreetsLA, the agency that maintains and regulates LA's thoroughfares, from properly policing illegal tree-cuttings by large corporations.

"Through our investigation, we’ve learned that StreetsLA can’t proactively protect our 700,000-plus city city trees and investigate abuse," Mr Meija said.

"The city has only 12 inspectors... the system isn’t working as intended."

A spokesperson for Universal said the trees were cut back around this time every year and that it had not intended to deny the picketers respite from the heat.

"We support the [strikers'] right to demonstrate, and are working to provide some shade coverage," the company said. Local media later confirmed that the studio had set up tents and was giving out water to the picketers.

The Writers' Guild of America and the actors' union SAG-AFTRA, together representing around 172,000 showbusiness professionals, are on strike over compensation for online streaming and the use of artificial intelligence.

It is the first time in 63 years that both actors and writers have been on strike simultaneously, bringing Hollywood to a standstill and threatening studios' pipeline of new content for 2024 and beyond.

However, strikers protesting outside major studios have been buffeted by a relentless heatwave that drove temperatures in some parts of California and the southwest above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 Celsius).

“Them cutting the trees, it’s almost like the strike — they are trying to cut off our livelihood, they are trying to take the oxygen out of everything that is going on,” actor and producer Dee Thompson told The Los Angeles Times last week.

The WGA has also filed a complaint with the US National Labor Relations Board accusing Universal of "interfering with, coercing, and restraining" striking employees by blocking sidewalks in designated picketing areas and forcing protesters to march through "significant car traffic".

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